Muddy shovels and needle movers

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 107 views 

If or when the post-Great Recession history of Fort Smith is written, a leading candidate as an historic marker in the economic recovery will be the recent and well-attended cold and muddy groundbreaking that was birthed by the near-death of a Fort Smith hospital system.

More than 250 people gathered Tuesday morning (March 3) for a groundbreaking ceremony on the first phase – $32.4 million – of the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine. The facility, part of the larger Fort Smith-based Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, which has at least $106 million to tap for present and future development, will by next fall begin training future physicians. The osteopathic college will eventually be home to 600 students and is estimated to have an annual economic impact of $100 million. The impact estimate may be a little high, but even if it’s half that, it will be huge for a region that has lost more than 14,400 jobs since June 2006.

This is just the beginning for this 200-acre patch of land at Chaffee Crossing just south and east of Fort Smith proper. It could one day house a dental school. Or a physician assistant program. School for eye doctors? Yes, because if it’s medical education, anything is possible.

What’s more, this enterprise can’t be outsourced and the demand for the service isn’t going away anytime soon. It is estimated that the U.S. will have 90,000 fewer physicians than needed by 2025. Hospital systems all around Arkansas are lining up to have access to the 150 doctors a year who will soon begin to graduate from the new college.

The ancillary impact will be significant, also. The service sector needed to support a medical college campus with at least 600 students and more than 100 faculty and staff will drive more development – think housing, for starters – and job growth.

But let’s return to how we all found ourselves recently watching well-dressed adults trying to fling mud off shovels. It seems Hollywoodish, this story. Almost unbelievable with respect to the protagonists winning the day in the last few minutes of the movie. And the encouragement to review the road taken to find 20 shovels lined up neatly for a superficial photo op, and to consider the reality behind the speechifying, smiling and shoveling of this past Tuesday, could respectively be attributed to revisionist fantasy or hyperbolic wishful thinking.

It is neither. I submit it is rational to believe the near collapse of Fort Smith-based Sparks Health System – a large regional medical center that employed more than 2,500 and was one of the few locally controlled hospital systems in Arkansas as of 2008 – produced a dynamic that not only was wholly unpredictable, but even now is so positive that it makes difficult an assessment that does not understate.

During 2008 and 2009 the Board of Trustees at Sparks Health System were not sure they could keep the doors open. Cash on hand was month-to-month. Plans to seek a buyer and measures to file bankruptcy were engaged on parallel tracks. As John Taylor, one of the former Sparks Trustees, noted at the groundbreaking, hospital officials were “staring straight into the face of insolvency.”

And now is where I screw all of this up by naming names. Some of the key folks in keeping the hospital train on the tracks were Judy Boreham, the aforementioned Taylor, Jim Walcott, Jim Patridge, Robert Davidson, and Kyle Parker (And I have most assuredly and apologetically not identified several others who deserve credit.). Parker is now the president and CEO of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education. Taylor recently said some folks wrongly accuse Parker of being a bulldog.

“He’s not a bulldog, he’s a bulldozer,” Taylor said, adding that Parker possesses an incredible aversion to failure.

Boreham, the widow of longtime Baldor CEO Rollie Boreham who had been a significant benefactor for Sparks, was a huge force in keeping Sparks alive long enough to be purchased in late 2009 by Health Management Associates in a $138 million deal. Of that, about $70 million was set aside for a foundation, which became The Degen Foundation. Which became the financier for the new school. Which brings us to Jim Walcott. He challenged the Degen Board – the former Sparks Board – to think big with the money. The problem with Fort Smith, he believed, was too many folks in leadership positions comfortable with small moves. Walcott said they should use the money to “move the needle.”

That’s what they were doing with those shovels on Tuesday – formally acknowledging a major needle move. Under that tent in an open area bordered by elevation markers and scattered trees that scraped the overcast sky we gathered only because a few dedicated people were determined to do more than just survive for the moment.

Taylor says the timeline that brought Fort Smith from losing local control of a major hospital to being home to one of the newest medical colleges in the nation was Providential. He says too many things fell into place for it to be coincidental. That accounting potentially discounts the determination of those who possess a will, work ethic and the wisdom to position for better outcomes. I want to believe this region still has the leadership necessary to tap and maximize its vast potential.

Fort Smith businessman Steve Clark likes to tell folks the cavalry is not coming to save the Fort Smith economy. He says Fort Smith must rescue itself. (And I add that state and federal governments and their agencies will help only marginally, and the seemingly dysfunctional city government may do less than that.) Clark says leaders within the city must come forward and selflessly find a way to be the cavalry.

It’s possible the leading element of the cavalry has arrived. I want to think it so, but a few more years of economic history will judge that possibility and my optimism.

There is one thing I do know. When I think about a future in an area with 600 extremely bright and stressed medical school students, I think about the investment needed to open a bar in downtown Fort Smith. I’d call it the Sparks Bar & Grill. Our signature drink would be the Muddy Shovel.

The first round is on me.

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